I recently experienced something on a flight that neither the captain, the controller, or myself had EVER seen happen or even heard of happening. We were supposed to ferry (empty leg with no passengers) from Fulton County Airport, which is in the Atlanta, Georgia area to West Palm Beach, Florida. There was a lot of weather moving through Florida (so basically a normal a day in Florida) at the time and pretty much every airport in Florida that was south of Orlando was ground stopped and we had been advised by ATC that our expected departure clearance time was about four hours away. An expected departure clearance time or EDCT is, as it’s name implies, the time we can expect to depart for our destination and they are assigned anytime there are delay programs in effect at our destination, whether the delay program is for weather, airspace congestion, or some other reason. If you’ve ever experienced a ground delay and heard the crew say that your expected departure time is insert time here and that it could change, the time they gave you is the EDCT time that ATC gave them.
Before I get to what happened, there are some terms I want to briefly talk about so that when I tell the story, it will make more sense.
VFR(Visual Flight Rules) and IFR(Instrument Flight Rules). These are different sets of flight rules that an aircraft can operate under. These are the rules that govern the flight, and do not necessarily reflect the weather on a given flight because an aircraft operating IFR, can fly in visual conditions. When operating VFR, an aircraft must remain out of the clouds and have a certain inflight visibility in order to be legal and VFR aircraft are not necessarily required to talk to ATC. Unless they have requested radar flight following (basically ATC will follow their flight on radar and basically provide the same services they would to an IFR aircraft) VFR aircraft squawk 1200 on their transponder, and if they are receiving flight following they will squawk an assigned code on their transponder just like an IFR aircraft. (IFR aircraft always receive radar services.) When operating IFR, we receive our IFR clearance or flight plan which gives us our route, altitude, squawk code, and initial departure Controller frequency. This is separate from our IFR release, which the tower has to receive before they can clear us to takeoff. (When we receive an EDCT, ATC is basically holding our IFR release which prevents us from departing). When we land at a towered airport, the tower closes our IFR flight plan for us. When we land at an un-towered airport, if the weather is good we can cancel IFR in the air or close our IFR flight plan after we land (If we forget to close our flight plan after landing, search and rescue procedures will be initiated after about 30 minutes). When we choose to cancel IFR in the air, ATC tells us something along the lines of “Squawk VFR, frequency change approved.” This tells us to change our transponder code to 1200 and gives us permission to change to a different frequency.
So, back to what happened. If you remember, we were looking at a four hour delay, so we were sitting inside the FBO (Fixed Based Operator, basically the fancy name for the general aviation terminal) watching TV in the crew lounge. Somebody from the FBO told us that the control tower was on the phone and wanting to talk to us. The controller in the tower said that the ground stop had been lifted temporarily and we had a small window of about 15 minutes to get in the air, if we wanted to try and make it. We told him we would try, so we called the company and filled them in. We started the engines, picked up our IFR clearance, got everything programmed, and taxied to the runway. We contacted the tower and the tower controller cleared us for takeoff. We had climbed to about 300ft, and the tower controller tells us “Squawk VFR, and enter the left traffic pattern, you’re cleared to land runway two-six.” The captain and I look at each other like “Did we hear him correctly?”, so the captain changed our transponder code to 1200 while I banked to the left to enter the left traffic pattern.
We landed without further incident, and once we landed the tower controller apologized and said that about the time we had started rolling down the runway, Atlanta Center called them and told them to not let us go, that West Palm had gone back into the ground stop and that our IFR clearance had been cancelled. The tower controller handed us over to the ground controller to taxi back to the FBO. The ground controller apologized as well, and said “I’ve worked here for 30 years, and that is the FIRST time I have ever seen that.” That was the first time any of us had had a flight plan cancelled by ATC as soon as the plane got into air. It just doesn’t happen. Center advising the tower to hold an airplane, even after issuing a release for the plane is not uncommon. The tower typically will have enough notice to advise the plane before the plane gets to the runway, and the plane will go sit wherever the ground controller tells them to. Once we’re airborne we continue on towards our destination, and if ATC needs to delay us, they’ll slow us down or, put us in a holding pattern (everybody’s favorite), or we’ll divert to our alternate airport if we need to.
Ultimately, we wound up flying to Miami later that evening with no issues. No, this wasn’t a dramatic event that would make the news (and honestly, most non-normal events that happen during a flight aren’t as dramatic as the media would have you think), but it was still something that neither the controller, the captain, or myself had seen in 55 years of combined experience.